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HIGH-FLYING junior minister Robert Hughes resigned after admitting an extra-marital affair, we read. Or, as some papers put it, a passionate affair. It all sounded rather old-fashioned. But then affair is an old- fashioned word. The Victorians tended to spell it affaire, thus giving what was already a nice vague euphemism the additional obscurity of a foreign tongue (pas devant les enfants) or perhaps, since les enfants couldn't have noticed the difference, an extra touch of the old oo-la- la. Other words for the same thing - intrigue, liaison, amour - were also, naturally, French. Everyone knew that the French were obsessed by sex and that theirs was the language of love.

In those days none of these words necessarily implied actual coition. For that, people needed the further cloak of Latin, so that anyone caught in the act was in flagrante delicto, which with luck would fox the infantes. (At least it was better than the vulgar on the job.) Even as recently as 30 years ago affair could be ambiguous. "We're having an affair, but we're not having an affair," I once heard someone say. Others might have said that she and her lover (another word which now means more than it did) had a "thing" going, which is charmingly imprecise; but affair, when you come to think of it, is not much crisper.

The French had adapted it from faire, and we were already using it in the 14th century to mean "business". The OED dates its first use in the Robert Hughes sense - without the "e" - from the start of the 18th century. By the 19th it could indeed mean no more than "thing" ("his carriage was a ramshackle affair"), a bit like the French machin.

Despite its vagueness and versatility, when we hear that someone has had an affair - we know just what (though not necessarily whom) he has been having.

Nicholas Bagnall